A pilot project in Brandon to help people test for fentanyl before taking drugs has expanded across the province.
The project, started by the Manitoba Harm Reduction Network, supplies people who use drugs with testing strips, which can be used to test for fentanyl in substances, network co-ordinator Solange Machado said.
The project started in December 2020, Machado said, when more fentanyl started appearing on the street. The opioid is extremely potent and was being used to cut other substances when drug supplies were disrupted by COVID-19.
"We saw instances of overdoses and overdose deaths skyrocketing, so we saw there was a need," she said.
"We did it pretty quickly, ordered a bunch of fentanyl test strips and got them out as quickly as we could."
The strips allow people to test for fentanyl in the substance they are using. Machado said people can combine a small amount of the substance with water and dunk the strip in it. If the strip shows one line, it means there is fentanyl in it, but two lines mean it is fentanyl-free.
After doing the test, people can decide how to proceed, she said.
"This gives people the autonomy to make the decision from there, like ‘maybe I’m not going to use this substance because I found there was fentanyl or maybe I’m still going to use it, but use it a little bit differently, use less than I was planning or make sure I’m not using alone or have a Naolxone kit present," she said.
Many tests come back positive, according to the data Machado has gathered so far. She said the majority of "down," which is heroin mixed with another substance, comes back positive. Fentanyl is also showing up in the city’s methamphetamine.
"I’ve had people still continue to use the down or drugs containing fentanyl, they’re just using it differently … being prepared for if they were to have an overdose," she said.
A total of 12 people died from drug overdoses in 2020 in Brandon, compared to seven people in 2019, according to numbers provided by the Brandon Police Service.
Trips to the hospital after consuming drugs rose province-wide, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information.
Hospitalizations rose 19 per cent overall in Manitoba over the first six months of the pandemic, including a 28 per cent increase for hospitalizations after taking opioids.
Machado said the Manitoba Harm Reduction Network is in the middle of the pilot project, which is planned to continue until her supply of testing strips has been used up. The goal is to use the information to make the strips more widely available in harm reduction bags.
So far, the fentanyl strip program has been expanded to Winnipeg, Selkirk, The Pas, Flin Flon and Eriksdale-Ashern, Machado said. The pilot was first launched in Selkirk, but relaunched in Brandon late last year before the current expansion.
The goal is to have the strips readily available to anyone who wants them.
While demand for the strips was very high at the beginning of the pilot, it has started to die down in the past month, she said. While Machado said she is not entirely sure what that means to the city’s drug supply, it could mean there is less fentanyl circulating.
Brandon Overdose Awareness chair Antoinette Gravel-Ouellette told the Sun last week the ability for people to test substances before taking them is "huge," as so many things are being cut with fentanyl.
"People may be unaware that is part of the substance they are taking," she said.
While demand for testing strips appears to have done down in the past month, Machado said they are still available from Manitoba Harm Reduction Network workers.
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